TAMPA — Familiarity does not seem to breed contempt when it comes to The Phantom of the Opera.
It's my hunch that many, if not most, people going to Andrew Lloyd Webber's megamusical during its fifth go-round at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center are repeat customers. The mother and daughter seated next to me on opening night, for example, were seeing the stage production for the fifth or sixth time, and they also saw the movie.
I'm a frequent Phantom-goer myself, having attended at least a half-dozen performances through the years, though I hadn't been to the show in a while. I went to see how it is holding up more than two decades from its premiere.
There is still a big-night-out quality to the experience. The theater was virtually full, a few guys in the crowd sported tuxes and a woman in my row wore a little black dress and elbow-length gloves. Even after so many viewings, a pleasant shiver of anticipation hit me on seeing the tableau onstage: the tarp-covered chandelier, the plush Victorian drapery, the wisps of smoke illuminated by a ghost light.
What strikes me now about Phantom is how great Hal Prince's direction was, highlighted by Maria Bjornson's richly suggestive production design. You get your money's worth from the spectacular scenery and costumes, which appear to be well-maintained by the company.
I wasn't so bowled over by the famous big effects — the Phantom rowing Christine across the candle-laden lake beneath the Paris Opera House, the chandelier plunging down to close the first act — as I was by some of the smaller touches. When Christine gazes at a mirror in the Phantom's lair, and an actor (or is it a mannequin?) representing her chalk-faced image as a bride pops from the frame, it comes as a creepy shock.
Lloyd Webber's music, on the other hand, has not worn well, perhaps because I've heard it so often. The actors have all grown up with these songs, memorizing the renditions from the original cast album, performing them in contests and concerts, and they have a hard time bringing anything new to the table. Nor would the audience accept creative license with interpretation of the roles.
The Music of the Night, for example, seems forever locked in thrall to the high, glassy whine of the original Phantom, Michael Crawford. The road company's man in the half mask, Richard Todd Adams, struggled with the unforgiving pitch on opening night. Trista Moldovan's Christine breaks the mold a bit, coming across as more buxom and hearty than the waifish ingenue of Sarah Brightman. Raoul, Christine's suitor, is strongly sung by Greg Mills, but his affected, posh speaking style becomes a bore.
Several of the supporting roles are delightfully cast. Kim Stengel has played Carlotta, the diva supplanted by Christine, an amazing 4,500 performances and counting, and she brings a droll savvy to the wicked opera spoofs that remain a high point. One of my favorite numbers is Notes/Prima Donna, a duet that blossoms into an octet. It was exuberantly performed by Bruce Winant and Thomas Schumacher as the beleaguered opera house managers.
Madame Giry and her daughter Meg hold a key to the mysteries of the opera house, and they are vividly portrayed by Nancy Hess and Jessi Ehrlich. When the Phantom vanishes and Meg holds up the mask at the end to Puccini-esque strings, I always find myself wondering about a sequel. The book has already been written, The Phantom of Manhattan, a 1999 novel by Frederick Forsyth, just waiting for Lloyd Webber to tackle it.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.